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Former senior Liberal staffer said he had no contact with Sidewalk Labs before controversial Quayside award

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John Brodhead, Sidewalk Labs’ director of policy and strategy, told a parliamentary committee he had no contact with the company while working for the federal minister overseeing Waterfront Toronto, the agency partnering with the firm on the controversial Quayside smart city development.

Tuesday’s testimony is the first time Brodhead has publicly addressed questions raised by members of the committee about his involvement in the process that led to the selection of Sidewalk Labs.

Sidewalk Labs was announced as the winning proposal for the Quayside development in October 2017, at an event that featured Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then-Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory. Six months after that announcement, Brodhead left the federal government to work for the company.

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Talking Point

In his first public statements since questions were raised over his involvement in the selection of Sidewalk Labs, John Brodhead, the former senior Liberal staffer and current Sidewalk Labs executive, told a parliamentary committee he had no contact with the company before its controversial Quayside project was announced.

Brodhead said his first contact with Sidewalk Labs—the subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet—came after the firm was chosen as the winner of Waterfront Toronto’s Request for Proposals (RFP) process for the Quayside. But he acknowledged that he had been in communication with Waterfront Toronto in his role as chief of staff to then-Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi. “I had fairly frequent contact with them on a number of files,” he said, citing the federally-funded flood protection plan for the Toronto Port Lands.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics questioned Brodhead, CEO Dan Doctoroff and policy and communications head Micah Lasher.

Brodhead and Doctoroff declined to answer questions from The Logic both before and after the meeting.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who questioned Brodhead on his contact with Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, raised concerns about political involvement in the Quayside project process, saying that “the prime minister has been very close on this project.”

Angus also cited the findings of Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who wrote in a December 2018 report that Waterfront Toronto had not adequately consulted with any of the three levels of government that created it, but that the plans were “being discussed at a senior political level.” Both Doctoroff and Brodhead said they didn’t know who the auditor general was referring to.

Brodhead is a longtime Liberal aide. Between 2011 and 2013, he was a senior aide to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, where he worked alongside Trudeau’s recently-departed principal secretary Gerald Butts. After the Liberals won the October 2015 federal election, Brodhead became chief of staff to Sohi, before switching to the office of then-Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott in September 2017.

Brodhead said that it was while he was working at Indigenous services that he was first contacted by Sidewalk Labs, when a newly-hired employee at the company reached out to him. “She had recently taken on the role, and wanted to learn more about Toronto politics,” he said. Lasher later said the conversation occurred a month after October 2017 announcement.

Brodhead said “multiple conversations took place” after that first contact. In late January 2018, he was “expecting an offer from Sidewalk Labs” and contacted the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. The federal watchdog cleared him to accept the offer in February 2018, Brodhead said. Ministerial staff are typically subject to one-year “cooling-off” period, during which they cannot work for an organization with which they had “direct and significant official dealings” while in public office.

Doctoroff laid out the same timeline of Brodhead’s hiring in his opening statement to the committee, saying Sidewalk Labs’ “very first interactions with John came well after the public announcement of our selection by Waterfront Toronto.” In response to a question from Conservative MP Peter Kent, Doctoroff said Sidewalk had no contact with Sohi’s office prior to the RFP process.

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Angus had previously raised Brodhead’s involvement in the Quayside project when Waterfront Toronto executives appeared before the committee in February, asking when he had become involved with the project on behalf of the federal government. Meg Davis, the chief development officer, said she was “not aware of any conversation” between the agency and Brodhead.

In a January 2019 letter to federal Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne, Angus said the government needed to make clear how the Quayside deal was reached, including the role of “several ministerial staffers who have gone on to work directly for Sidewalk Labs” in the Quayside award process. He also cited the company’s communications with federal officials in calling for the project to be paused.

Both MPs also repeatedly referenced Lysyk’s report. She found that Waterfront Toronto had given Sidewalk Labs “more information” than other respondents for the agency’s RFP on the Quayside development, which she said “raises the risk of an unfair and unequal advantage.”

Kent asked Doctoroff about “preferential treatment” in the RFP process, a term the Sidewalk Labs CEO disputed. Doctoroff said that Lysyk “drew no conclusions about whether we had such an advantage.” In his opening statement, Doctoroff said Sidewalk Labs was “unusually well-positioned to compete in a rigorous and fair process” because it devoted all the company’s resources to its bid, had a staff versed in urban innovation and was willing to spend US$50 million to produce its plan for the project.

The Conservative MP also raised questions about the length of the RFP, which Doctoroff at one point referred to as seven months. Kent referenced a February 2019 column from The Logic editor-in-chief David Skok in which a competing Quayside bidder said they had believed it to be six weeks, with no possibility of an extension. Doctoroff said that only represented the first stage of the RFP process, something Davis also said at the February meeting.

Waterfront Toronto had reached out to 52 organizations as part of its market sounding process, Doctoroff said on Tuesday. “It was no mystery that the RFP was going to get issued,” he said. “I can only speak to what we did, and what we did is we assembled all of our forces and all of our resources, and we worked around the clock for six weeks to assemble something that we were quite proud of.”

In February, the Toronto Star and the National Observer reported that Sidewalk Labs had laid out plans for over 100 acres of Toronto’s waterfront, including taking a cut of developers’ charges and property tax revenues from the areas surrounding its development, and financing a light rail transit line. Sidewalk Labs said the internal documents on which the reports were based were outdated. And, provincial government sources told The Canadian Press that it would not approve the plans as outlined.

At the committee meeting, Doctoroff said Sidewalk Labs’ plans and the RFP itself always envisioned areas outside the 12 acres of Quayside.

Adam Vaughan, the Liberal MP for Spadina–Fort York, had Doctoroff confirm that its plans for Toronto are subject to Waterfront Toronto’s approval, and must meet city planning regulations, provincial zoning rules and any privacy requirements, new or existing, set by any of the three levels of government.

Vaughan also asked Doctoroff to clarify that Sidewalk Labs had originally been contacted about Quayside by a staff member at Waterfront Toronto, not the prime minister or another member of the federal Liberal government. The Liberal MP, who is not a member of the committee, asked similar questions during a February 21 appearance by Waterfront Toronto executives Meg Davis, chief development officer, and Kristina Verner, vice-president of innovation.

Next week, the committee is expected to hear from Julie DiLorenzo, a developer and former Waterfront Toronto board member.

Sidewalk Labs is due to present its Master Innovation and Development Plan to Waterfront Toronto this spring.